The Book Thief

Liesel Meminger is not quite ten years old when everything in her life changes. In only a few days, her brother dies, her mother leaves her, and she is sent to live with two strangers who ask that she call them “Mama” and “Papa.” Even at such a young age, she knows that nothing will ever be the same. What she doesn’t realize, however, is how true this is not only for her, but for everyone. Her foster parents, her friends, and all of her neighbors are each facing their own struggles to survive in Nazi Germany.

Liesel grows to love her foster parents, particularly her father, Hans Hubermann, who stays up with her when she cannot sleep and teaches her how to read. Liesel stole her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, the day of her brother’s burial, and it is from this book that she first learns to read. Once she starts, she never wants to stop: Liesel becomes obsessed with acquiring more books, more words. Aiding her in this quest is Rudy Steiner, her best friend, and Max Vandenburg, the Jewish fist fighter whom the family hides in their basement. She also finds an unexpected ally in the mayor’s wife, a strange, sad woman who offers her access to a beautiful library full of books. But Liesel’s happiness is constantly threatened by the war, which brings with it the danger of bombings and, in the case of Max, discovery. Is it possible to make it through a war unscathed?

The Book Thief is a memorable book—and not only because it is narrated by Death. It is a vivid rendering of Germany during the Holocaust, capturing both the ugliness and the beauty of the time. Indeed perhaps the most remarkable quality of the book may be how unexpectedly beautiful it is: though marked by violence, hatred, and countless tragedies, it also highlights those acts of kindness, defiance, and uncommon bravery that make the characters more than victims of their circumstances. Liesel is a winsome protagonist—you can tell even Death admires her—and her strong will and warm heart make her the perfect character around whom to base the various events in the book. She is young enough to have a childlike innocence, yet shrewd enough to gain a gradual understanding of the horrors around her. She is also spirited enough to combat the injustice she witnesses in any way she can. Though essentially powerless, she is always ready to put up a fight.

The other main characters—and they are considerable—are equally well-developed, and the memory of each is quietly devastating even long after the book is over. Even those who fare well in the end endure almost unbelievable hardship, making their stories upsetting to recall. And, of course, many do not survive. Although this is a fact that Death hints at very early on, it still comes as a terrible shock, for the reader desperately wishes that it were untrue. These are characters who, through their amusing antics, heartwarming goodness, and surprising depth, endeared themselves to their reading audience. Their loss is felt not only in the narrative but on a personal level.

In the end, this is precisely how The Book Thief feels: personal. It is a novel based on the experiences of author Markus Zusak’s parents, and it reads like a story that has been told again and again, in many different versions. There is a familiarity, and thus an authenticity, that makes this book special. To look back on it is to conjure not plot points but vivid memories. The Book Thief is interesting, insightful, and even educational. More than that, however, it is a haunting look at the power of words and the ways they express our humanity.

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  1. Bookish Hobbit

     /  November 27, 2011

    I found this book to be an awesome reading experience, I loved every minute of it and I had to keep turning the pages no matter what because it just held me and wouldn’t let go. I can see this being a title that I can come back to again and again.

    • Yeah, it certainly ends up being a fast read for such a long book. I definitely got caught up in it, too, even though I was a little wary of Zusak’s writing style at first. Once I got going though, I was hooked. I felt so invested in the characters that I needed to know what came next.


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